The Accidental Endurance Athlete

I didn’t intend to become an endurance athlete. In fact, I wasn’t really that athletic before 2012. I was more of your typical adult that had underutilized gym memberships and would say that I didn’t really like sports.

I find it funny, almost ironic, when people make comments about my dedication to physical fitness and assume that I was always like this. I grew up figure skating for several years which was parent-driven. In high school I joined the swim team which was really just so I could get out of PE class. I was a slow swimmer who at least showed up to practice though.

I spent college very typical of many students. I rarely used my campus gym membership. I would take the bus almost everywhere except on Sundays when the buses didn’t run. I took up caving and rock climbing; neither are cardiovascular exercise. My irregular visits to the pool were big deals if I managed to swim 4000 yards (twice) or well, just get there at all. I missed some cave trips because I was too lazy to schlep myself to the Cornell Outdoor Education office to meet the van. I wasn’t an athlete by any stretch of the imagination.

Sometime around 2002 or 2003, I joined a gym again with my good friend Liz. The idea was that we were going to go 3 times a week. Like many people before us, that didn’t last either. Sure I was caving and rock climbing still, but I was a total slug otherwise.

So how does someone go from that to working out 9 – 11 times a week? Easy.

The option to exercise was taken from me. Twice.

My pelvis x-ray in April 2012.

There are dates that everyone knows by heart in their lives. One of mine is 18 October 2010. That’s the night that I felt a weird tingling in my right hip as I went to bed that night. The next day I had lost my ability to lift my right leg. I cried from the physical pain of moving it with my arms. At St. Francis Memorial Hospital I needed 50 mg of demerol to make it through the MRI as it was too painful to sit or lay down. Radiology had to wrap me up in the bedsheets and carry me from the gurney to their bed as I couldn’t make it on my own. On 1 March 2011, my pelvis was surgically broken to fix the dysplasia I hadn’t known that I had and save my right hip joint. On 9 March 2011, I woke up shortly after midnight on my first night home from the hospital in the worst physical pain that I’ve ever felt. The oxycontin had worn off and I had been too exhausted to fill the prescription on the way home from Stanford Hospital. I was now feeling the full on pain of a broken pelvis. It felt like my joint was on fire. I cried a lot during that time. It took all my energy to get out of bed with a foot loop (as I couldn’t bend my hip or leg while the pelvis healed) and migrate the 3 feet to the bedside commode. I couldn’t make it to my living room. I spent 9 consecutive days never leaving the bedroom. My weight dropped to around 100 pounds. I lost any muscle mass I had. I puked a lot from the pain medications and general post-op nausea. You could see the outline of my pelvic bone. I didn’t fit into any of my clothes.

I made a full recovery though thanks to my excellent medical team at Stanford Hospital.

I felt a too familiar tingle in my left hip in December 2011 while visiting cousins in Boston. On 27 March 2012, my pelvis was broken again to save my left hip joint. I lost all my muscle mass and fat again. Again I made a full recovery thanks to the same Stanford medical team.

I was bedridden and completely dependent on a wheelchair, walker, crutches, and cane for the better part of 1.5 years.

The only photo I know of with me in a wheelchair after my first surgery in 2011.

I regretted all the times I took for granted my opportunities to even walk. When your world is reduced to “how badly do I need to pee because it’ll take 15 minutes and wipe me out to move 3 feet?” and you can’t even go through a closed door on your own, you start viewing the world differently.

I weigh about 116 pounds here in May 2012 (left) and June 2012 (right).

I started swimming again in August 2012 to help cope with a relationship break-up. The water was the one place that I could be alone with my thoughts and it felt like my ex couldn’t get to me there. I wasn’t a swimmer when we were together so this was something that was completely not associated with him. I didn’t know what an impact that swimming would have on my life and the chain reaction that had already started.

Exercising became more than just burning calories, it became a way of life for me. I don’t even think of it as “exercise.” Everything I do is because it feels good. Spending all day in bed and getting pushed around in a wheelchair isn’t as fun as it may sound. You give up your freedom. I spent so much time stuck in bed wishing I could do anything besides just lay there. I swim open water and ride with friends. I only started open water swimming in August 2013. I got on the bike in November 2014 and now have a bunch of cycling friends. We get together primarily to swim open water or ride. Going to the gym or pool is boring. I think it’s true that one goes to the gym to look good and outside to be healthy. All my spinning, rowing, Pilates, and small group strength training are also fun, social, and allow me to push myself but are also driven from their complimentary benefits to my swimming and cycling.

I swim on days that I really don’t feel like being there. I sometimes get so nervous before bike rides that I’ll pee 3 times before leaving the house and have to tell myself to calm down and it’ll be okay. I’ll push myself through cramps and discomfort and the occasional puking because none of that physical pain is comparable to what I felt back on 19 October 2010 or 9 April 2011. I don’t want to take the choice I have for granted though. I’ll regret it afterwards. It’s why I don’t quit even when my entire body is sore and I don’t know if I can move again if I stop. And if a shark kills me, at least I died doing what I loved and was meant to go out that way. Beats getting killed by a MUNI bus.

I never intended to become an endurance swimmer or cyclist. Something inside me just doesn’t want to stop when I get in the water or on the bike. I rode 42 miles on my 4th ride and then rode another 55 miles the very next day and both involved non-rolling hills. I’m happier than I was before I started any of this. It’s hard to end a swim or ride as I want to stay out there. I feel a little disappointment at the end, like a kid being called inside from recess. All I can think of afterwards is when is the next time that I get to go back out there. As someone said once, I know what I’ve done and don’t know what I have not attempted yet. For me, that means challenging myself with swimming or riding longer distances and/or more challenging routes.

Swimming towards the Golden Gate Bridge in March 2015.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m running away from when I felt trapped during post-op. Like how after a break-up and you say “I’m never going back to that again!” Every day I wake up knowing that I was blessed with having the option to get out of bed on my own and there were many people out there that didn’t have that option due to disease, paralysis, etc. I can spend more time loafing around doing nothing but drinking and eating when my body gives out on me for good. I don’t really want to slow down until that day happens.

I’m lucky such a procedure as a periacetabular osteotomy exists and that I found a local surgeon who was the direct medical lineage of the surgeon who created the procedure that preserves the joint by breaking the pelvis, reorientating the joint to the correct angle, and screwing the fragment back. I have 4 long screws in my pelvis underneath two 6″ scars. I chose a two-piece swimsuit back then because I wanted to always see the scars to remind myself what I had gone through to get here.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but my mobility choices may be taken away from me again. As my friend Brandon says, treat every single swim or pedal stroke like it’s your last one that you’ll ever get to do. I don’t want to wake up one day wishing that I’d gotten that one last swim or ride in the day before.

View from the top of Mt. Tam, my 9th bike ride.

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2 Responses to The Accidental Endurance Athlete

  1. Bill Harris says:

    Fantastic entry!

    I found your blog while trying to find the distance to the bouy at Shaws Cove, Laguna Beach. You probably know the one : ) I read through you’re entire blog over a weekend and enjoyed it like a good book. This entry really sums the spirit of your blog. Keep up the good work!

    I also enjoy biking and have added you as a friend on Strava.


    • kprebil says:

      Sorry I didn’t respond to this earlier Bill! Yeah I know that exact buoy of course. 🙂 I tell tales of having to sight off of the sun in the morning to get back to the buoy after OakStreaker swims! “I swear it’s over there somewhere….”

      Thanks for reading my entire blog!! And the compliments.:) I really just write it for myself and forget that I have an audience. A lot of this is stuff that I’m thinking about while I’m swimming and then just need to get it out somewhere. Hope to meet you at Shaw’s sometime!

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